Written Evidence Submitted by the UK National Quantum Technology Hub in Sensors and Timing, University of Birmingham


We are submitting evidence to highlight the opportunity for the UK to extend its international leadership in Quantum Technologies to the Space sector.


Executive Summary

The UK has a thriving space industry, and is a leader in quantum technology. Joining the two together would bring enormous benefits, engendering new industries with high productivity.

The space industry already underpins more than 10% of the UK economy, supporting other sectors through satellite services such as communication, navigation and weather forecasting. Quantum technology is indispensable to future-proof these services, safeguarding UK leadership in insurance and finance, and it will enable entirely new applications, to feed growth sectors including autonomous transport and precision agriculture.

Orbiting quantum sensors can help us tackle climate change, avoid the worst effects of magnetic storms in space, and look underground to discover mineral resources and track scarce water supplies. Quantum clocks can give resilience to critical national infrastructure, which now relies on vulnerable satellite systems for precise timing signals.

Space agencies are actively pursuing quantum technologies. China has taken a lead in quantum communications with the MICIUS satellite, launched the first cold-atom clock in space and started ambitious programs for space-based optical clocks and atom interferometers. ESA and NASA are developing optical clocks for space, and the German Space Agency has joined forces with NASA to put an atom interferometer on the international space station.

In some ways, the UK is in an excellent position to take a lead in quantum technology services from space. The £1bn UK National Quantum Technology Programme has helped to create some of the world’s most advanced quantum sensing, imaging, communication and computing technologies, with developments including a satellite payload demonstrator for cold atoms. The programme’s focus on low-cost sensors is ideally suited for commercial space applications.

However, this position is at risk. Brexit may undermine our role in Europe; and compared with all other space nations, we lack the funding tools to pull novel technologies into commercial space applications.

Full Input

Prospects for the UK’s global position as a space nation

The UK has built an internationally leading position in Quantum Technologies. Quantum Technologies exploit some of the counterintuitive aspects of the quantum realm, such as the ability of an atom to be in two different energy states at the same time. These effects can be used to create exquisitely sensitive detectors for gravity or magnetic fields and ultra-accurate clocks.

In 2013, the government set up the UK National Quantum Technologies Programme to help take the country’s academic quantum excellence and translate it into commercial success. Committed and planned investment in the programme adds up to £1 billion. The programme places the UK in a leading position internationally in Quantum Technologies. In particular the UK is estimated to run over 10% of the worldwide Quantum Sensor activities. This position opens an opportunity to capture the globally leading position in quantum sensing from Space.


Strengths and weaknesses of the current UK space sector and research and innovation base

While the UK investment in Quantum Technologies overall corresponds to ~5% of international investments, the UK quantum sensor activities account for ~10% of worldwide quantum sensor activities, putting it into a clearly leading position. The drive towards low size, weight and power in this program opens the opportunity to harness the UK leadership in small satellites and utilize UK launch facilities. 


What lessons can be learned from the successes and failures of previous space strategies for the UK and the space strategies of other countries


-          UK small satellite and technology demonstration satellite programmes

-          UK companies capturing venture capital for quantum technology in space (e.g. Arqit raising $1.4bn)

The lesson from these successes is that supporting the development of small, cost-effective technologies and providing de-risking by technology demonstrator missions is driving commercial investment.


Initiate a UK Tech-Demo-Sat programme, taking advantage of cost-effective launch platforms and UK launch sites to allow faster and cheaper innovation in Space, than possible with the slow and expensive ground validation approach taken by most space agencies.



-          Split between funding for mission development (UKRI) and mission launch/operations (UKSA). This split is drying out the ideas pipeline for innovative missions with high risk – high return on investment. Many new Space Technologies ideas in UKSA programmes are today linked to international programmes, as the national resource of ideas is underfunded. Other players such as France and Germany include research under their Space Agency programmes and they are driving the agenda in terms of international mission proposals and roadmaps.


Task UKSA with the development of a research and innovation programme, providing additional funding to UKSA to be internationally competitive in this area. This programme could e.g. include academic-led Space Innovation Hubs and Space skills programmes.


What should be the aims and focus of a new UK Space Strategy


What needs to be done to ensure the UK has appropriate, resilient and future-proofed space and satellite infrastructure for applications:

Navigation systems

Position, navigation and timing (PNT) information is vital in transport, communications, energy distribution, finance and emergency response.

By far the most widely used sources of PNT are global navigation satellite systems (GNSS). These systems use quantum clocks on the ground and in space, providing timing and position data that is accurate, easily available and cheap to access. However, satellite systems suffer from several vulnerabilities, for example being easy to jam and susceptible to space weather (see Chapter 3: Quantum services for space). Even a temporary loss of GNSS could have serious consequences for critical national infrastructure[i].

Quantum technology can mitigate this threat through new atomic clocks, based on single trapped ions or groups of atoms in optical lattices, known as optical or quantum clocks. On the ground, these can provide backup timing. In space, they may be used to upgrade satellite navigation systems.


British time

The National Timing Centre[ii] (NTC) has been set up to help address the reliance on GNSS for time by critical sectors and industries. It will build a new network of atomic clocks to deliver resilient UK national time infrastructure. The centre will also provide innovation opportunities for UK industry and academia, and training to address the shortage of skills in time and synchronisation solutions.

Eventually, high precision optical clocks in space can supply time signals to the ground via laser links. Unlike the low-power broadcast radio signals of GNSS, these are hard to jam. Combined with both space-space and space-ground optical links, optical clocks will allow global time and frequency transfer.

A 2017 ESA report[iii] on quantum technologies in space suggests a goal of demonstrating in-orbit optical clock technology within 10 years. The UK can stay involved in ESA’s work, while at the same time using the cost-saving developments from the National Quantum Technology programme to build a commercial optical clock for space activity.


Know your place

Cold-atom accelerometers and gyroscopes can be used for inertial guidance systems, able to give position to within metres, providing a resilient alternative to GNSS. That will require precise knowledge of local gravity, because even small gravity anomalies could be misinterpreted as an acceleration of the vehicle. Quantum gravity sensors in space can provide this knowledge. At the same time, such precise data can be used to correct for unavoidable drifts in inertial guidance systems, by matching the readings of a local gravity sensor to the anomalies recorded on gravity maps. Quantum magnetic sensors can provide magnetic maps for the same purpose.


Earth observation including climate change

Space gives us a commanding view of our planet. Among many other things, satellites watch the weather, uncover natural resources and monitor water supplies.

The Earth observation (EO) market is huge. In 2017, global revenue was $43.7 billion, with annual growth of 14.8%. The UK has approximately 100 EO companies, the largest number in Europe[iv].

Quantum technology can bring many benefits to EO. Gravity sensors using cold-atom technology can give a detailed picture of water and mineral resources, as well as ice sheets and volcanic activity – helping to predict natural hazards such as drought and flooding, and giving us a clearer picture of climate change. Quantum sensors for magnetic fields could trace ocean currents, and monitor waves and melting ice. Quantum imaging systems could give new eyes to the next generation of earth observing missions, while quantum computing could take on the enormous challenge of data processing.

Nine out of ten natural disasters are related to water[v]. Since 1900 droughts have caused the deaths of over 11 million people and affected over 2 billion – more than any other physical hazard[vi]. Half the world’s people live in areas that experience water scarcity[vii], and a third of the world’s biggest groundwater systems are in distress[viii].

So there is an urgent need for better global water management, and early warning systems for drought and flooding. This requires the ability to look below the ground, to monitor aquifers and groundwater, and the most effective way to do that is through gravity.

Space-based detectors can reveal changes in reservoirs, glaciers and ground water through the slight changes they create in the local force of gravity. The NASA and ESA missions Gravity Recovery And Climate Experience (GRACE) and Gravity field and Ocean Circulation Explorer (GOCE) have already shown the potential impact for irrigation, water management and disaster prevention. For example, GRACE measurements over India and Bangladesh showed a marked decrease in water reserves[ix] as a result of increasing exploitation, followed by some replenishment after a change in policies and extraction practices. Observation of ground water and soil moisture can be used to predict droughts, and GRACE data has already improved drought prediction in the USA and Europe[x].

Gravity and magnetic field sensors can help in understanding and fighting climate change. The detailed monitoring of water (see above) is part of this, because water has a powerful effect on climate through evaporation and transpiration. Quantum technology can also give insights into ice melt and the long-term threat of sea level rise, as well as the changing, perhaps fragile pattern of ocean currents.

Ice fall

GRACE data has revealed the melting of land ice on Greenland and Antarctica. Between 2002 and 2016, Antarctica lost about 125 billion tonnes of ice per year, and Greenland 280 billion, between them raising global sea level by more than 1 millimetre per year.

With a constellation of quantum gravity satellites, far more frequent observations would help researchers to find out more about what is driving ice loss. And as spatial resolution improves, this technology will be able to weigh the smaller glaciers in mountain ranges around the world, including the vital reservoirs of water in the Himalaya and in South America’s Cordillera Blanca.


Currents and waves

Seawater conducts electricity, so when it moves through Earth’s magnetic field it generates a small electrical current, which in turn produces a magnetic field. This field has been observed from space[xi]. More detailed observations using quantum magnetometers (see box below) could monitor ocean wave heights, and potentially track tsunamis.

Perhaps more importantly, they could be used to follow ocean currents and reveal changes in salinity from melting polar ice. This is vital, because an influx of fresh water in the North Atlantic could interfere with the global system of ocean currents, which have a huge effect on climate – for example helping to keep western Europe warm. Gravity sensors can also help to track these rivers of water, from their effects on local sea level.

(June 2021)

[i] https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/satellite-derived-time-and-position-blackett-review

[ii] https://www.npl.co.uk/ntc

[iii] http://qtspace.eu:8080/sites/testqtspace.eu/files/QTspace_Stretegic_Report_Intermediate.pdf

[iv] http://earsc.org/news/results-eo-industry-survey-september-2017

[v] https://www.unisdr.org/2015/docs/climatechange/COP21_WeatherDisastersReport_2015_FINAL.pdf

[vi] www.fao.org/3/aq191e/aq191e.pdf

[vii] https://unesdoc.unesco.org/ark:/48223/pf0000261424

[viii] https://agupubs.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1002/2015WR017349

[ix] https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0921818114000526

[x] https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0022169412003228

[xi] Tyler1 RH, Maus S, Lühr H, Satellite Observations of Magnetic Fields Due to Ocean Tidal Flow, Science, 299, 239-241 (2003)